The Baptism of Jesus in John’s Gospel: What happened in the water?

By | January 13, 2013

I’ve written several posts about Jesus and the doctrine of the Trinity, many of which are now available in my “On Jesus” collection. Among them are my writings about the incarnation. I started with a post called “The Incarnation: A Heretic’s Creed,” and wrote the following in that reflection:

I BELIEVE the twofold point of the Jesus story is 1.) to show us that God is concerned about what’s happening in the world AND  2.) that God can’t fix the world without human cooperation. I’ve come to understand the incarnation as God’s effort to make use of humankind in the ongoing practice of changing the world. I’m not particularly interested in how God stuffed godself into the Jesus-sized container, or whether Jesus was of the same substance as God. I’m concerned with what the incarnation means for humankind in practical terms…

And I still mean what I wrote there… I really don’t think very often about “how god stuffed godself into the Jesus-sized container” because I think our obsession with incarnation theology tends to obscure the message of justice that was so central to Jesus’ ministry. However, this week’s lectionary readings include John’s account of Jesus’ Baptism, so I’ve spent quite a bit of my weekend thinking about Jesus and divinity.

Baptism as a Mystical DoorwayI love John’s gospel– not only because I regard it as the most mystical of the four, but because it is packed with non-traditional theology about Jesus. In this case, John tells the story of a baptizer whose ritual was designed to wash away sins. This rite was like a doorway. After progressing through the doorway, the participant was expected to reform himself or herself into a human being who  would walk in righteousness and live in communion with God.

It was once widely taught that at the age of 30, Jesus participated in the baptizer’s ritual for the remission of sins because he didn’t understand himself to be the “deity” we’ve insisted upon throughout the ages. It was further taught that as a result of his obedience, he achieved some kind of unique unity with the Divine. This newly-acquired unique union was the basis of his “sonship,” and is the reason why God’s voice said of Jesus: “This is my son in whom I am well-pleased.” In this sense, Jesus was the Supremely Faithful One, adopted by God to perform a special series of works in the world. I touched on the idea of “supreme faithfulness” in one of my older reflections about Jesus:

[There is] an ongoing debate about the Greek word pistis (faith). In short, the scriptures speak of faith in reference to Jesus, but it is unclear whether the writers meant “faith in Jesus,” or “the faith of Jesus”. [Theologian John Cobb] prefers the latter translation, and in his understanding, the word pistis was used by Paul to describe a Jesus whose divinity was expressed in his faithfulness to God…

See this video for a more in-depth explanation in Cobb’s own words:

Three hundred years after the death of Jesus, Christianity’s power players decided that the only acceptable doctrines about his nature would be those affirming that he was both fully human and fully divine from the moment of his birth. The alternative view (which seems to be supported by John’s gospel and is known as “adoptionism”) was declared heresy and deemed unacceptable. That’s why no one ever talks about the possible progression of Jesus’ divinity in the Book of John.

It is with all of that in mind that I’ve pondered to myself this weekend: What happened to Jesus when he got in the water? What does Baptism mean?

I think the Bible’s authors have answered this question in a variety of ways– but John does seem to say that Jesus underwent some change while participating in John the Baptizer’s ritual. Maybe the author really did mean to communicate that Jesus participated in a sinner’s ritual because he understood himself to be imperfect.

While I don’t really know what happened in the water, I still think of the gospels as invitations to bring love, peace and justice to the world while living in union with the Divine. Perhaps the rite of baptism offers a doorway to the Divine and empowerment to carry out the call of our souls. Or maybe it signifies spiritual newness, a clean slate… a new beginning…

I will continue to think about all of this as the weekend comes to a close.

In the mean time, what is your opinion? What do you think happened to Jesus in the water?

(Read more of my reflections about Jesus by clicking here…)